To write an obituary of Jacques Dugas is to enter into an attractive life that was long, full of obstacles and fragilities but what a fruitful and beautiful life. Jacques was born in 1924 at St-Maurice-l’exil, near Vienne in the department of Isere, France. He came from a big family of unshakeable Christian beliefs. His godfather was his elder brother, Pierre who became a Marist priest. His sister, Marie, a religious sister in the Company of Mary, was a missionary in DR.Congo. His other brothers and sisters enjoyed careers in the judiciary and army. Jacques’ father had a talent for painting, which Jacques remembered well as he had to stop and wait while his father sketched the heads of angels on the frescos with which he decorated the churches. Jacques was always very discreet about his family background that did not lack titles of nobility and addresses of castles. During his childhood, he suffered from attacks of rheumatoid arthritis. He recovered thanks to the intercession of Theresa of Lisieux canonised in 1925. One of the consequences of this illness was that he did not go to school like other children of his age. He was educated at home, as it was important that he did not have a relapse. He said that it was an experience that he would not wish on anybody. Another memory of childhood was when the family home burned down.
He was an excellent student during his secondary school days opting for mathematics in the Baccalaureate and preferring Greek to Latin. In 1942, he cut the cord tying him to his family and not without some pain in his heart; he arrived at the White Fathers in Marseille, prior to taking the boat to North Africa. He studied Philosophy in Thibar and proved to be a good student with a taste for speculation. Jacques was not very practical but this did not prevent him from taking part enthusiastically in manual work so beloved of the White Fathers. He did his military service from 1944 to the end of 1945; he did his novitiate in Maison Carée in 1946. He began his theological studies in 1947 in Thibar, took his Missionary Oath in Carthage on the 30th January 1950 before ordination to the priesthood in Thibar on the 28th June 1950.
Given his intellectual prowess, he was naturally appointed to Rome to do a doctorate in theology in two years. He presented and defended a thesis on Jean of St.Thomas, a reputed theological and philosophical scholar of the 17th century, a subject, which suited his speculative bent. After his sojourn in Rome, Jacques was appointed to Eastview, Canada as Professor of Theology. Everything was going well until he suffered a serious episode of ‘burnout’, which affected him seriously. He returned to France to rest and wait for another appointment. Medical advice suggested that he should not resume teaching at third level for fear of a relapse. The Society appointed him to Burundi to teach Theology in the Major Seminary of Burasira. The gamble paid off as Jacques adapted very well and he was much appreciated as a professor who taught clearly and methodically. The students appreciated him a lot too and he went on to spend eight years there. This experience contributed much to his deep attachment to the country and to the Church, which was expanding quickly. He was then appointed to Vals still teaching at third level! During his time in the Province, he followed the Long Retreat in Clamart in 1965. In 1968; he was given a formation task in the Brothers’ Scholasticate in Mours and later in Strasbourg. It was not a big success and he was delicately asked to leave!
This meant that Jacques was free to return to Burundi, which he did in 1970. From this year onwards, the apostolic work that would be the hallmark of his missionary life began to take shape. The young Archbishop of Gitega, André Makarakiza, M.Afr (+2004) dreamed of launching a programme to train deacons. His colleagues in the Episcopate thought this project was too premature. However, it did take the form of a seminary for ‘late’ vocations and Jacques was to consecrate himself to it with all his strength, heart and intellect. Who were these possible candidates? They were young men often engaged in activities such as catechists or monitors. They had no secondary school education, did not know Latin, and so could not dream of entering a Major Seminary. Slowly the work began to take shape despite the winds and tides of opposition. There was much prejudice against this project. However, it would require a lot more to discourage Jacques and to make him turn aside from the objectives fixed by his Bishop. We could now maybe ask the question, from where did Jacques get his energy, his fortitude, and his hope? We need to remind ourselves that during his training, Jacques devoted himself to True Devotion to Mary in the tradition of St. Louis Marie Grunion de Montfort. He held deep convictions, had a solid devotion to the reigning Pope and a strong sense of obedience. All this went to make him a sound apostle, enlightened and completely given to the Church of Burundi, which he loved passionately and to which he gave the best of himself. He knew Kirundi very well. His attachment to the least important people energised him. When the dramatic events occurred in 1972, he was not afraid to address himself to his Bishop and tell him what he thought of the situation and the somewhat ambiguous and slow response of the Hierarchy. It was a letter characterised by firmness and great respect but also full of deep convictions.
In 1987, Jacques suffered the common lot of many missionaries. He was expelled by a decree of the President, J. B. Bagaza.1 He returned to seeming exile, he a native of Saint Maurice-l’exil!, he did not know what being jobless was. He accepted an appointment to Arlit in Niger. His health held up. He stayed there for several months and helped in the community. The Parish Priest still remembers the day when Jacques managed by some unknown manoeuvre to drive his big 4/4 the wrong way on a dual carriageway! His lack of practical sense had caught him out.
Jacques was able to return to Burundi in 1988. He ministered in Gitwenge for a year, and then an opportunity presented itself to re-open the ‘late’ vocation seminary with two confreres in the Diocese of Muyinga. It is easy to follow Jacques’ missionary journey. Every year, he wrote a letter to members of his family and the many benefactors of the ‘late’ vocation seminary. His letters invariably contained a paragraph on the Pope in which he reminded people of the Holy Fathers’ initiatives, a protestation of love for the people of Burundi who were suffering a lot from a succession of nearly uninterrupted political and ethnic dramas. He also gave an opportunity to one or another of the seminarians who talked about seminary life and extended a big thank you to the benefactors.
In 1993, Jacques’ life took another direction. The ‘late’ vocation seminary had given 20 priests to the church in Burundi but with the general availability of secondary education in many towns, it meant that the work of the seminary became less urgent. He was appointed chaplain to the Monastery of Rweza where there was a community of contemplative Dominican Sisters. On top of this service, tailored to suit him, he also accepted the function of Chancellor of Ngozi Diocese. It gave him the opportunity to put things in order but perhaps most importantly to be available to the priests passing by. He got there by taking the bus for the 15kms long journey, which separated the monastery from the Bishop’s house.
In 2000, he was appointed to Buyenzi, the White Father Parish in the Muslim quarter of Bujumbura. Nothing could stop him and he began to learn Kiswahili, which was the lingua franca of this very multicultural neighbourhood. He remained there for six years only interrupted by home leaves, senior sessions and medical checkups. Despite his age, his health was generally good. His circular letters still showed the same love for the Pope, and for the Burundi people. They also inform us of the progressive disappearance of members of his family. He would be the last of his siblings to leave. However he was always proud of the fact that among his nephews and nieces there were some who said ‘yes’ to the call of the Lord.
In 2006, Jacques took up residence in Gitega in the big house that now served as a Pre-First Phase for the young Burundi candidates preparing to enter the White Fathers. For six years, he was a tactful and wise presence in the middle of this world of young people. He supported them by his advice, his prayer and his sacramental ministry. One could always see him strolling about reciting his three daily rosaries. It was the fuel of his spiritual and apostolic life.
When Jacques was 88 years old, he retired to France, and took up residence at La Chauderaie a Jesuit retirement home near our House in Ste.-Foy-de-Lyon. He was still able to travel and visit family members dispersed all over France. However, his strength began to fail, his lungs were tired, and he often needed oxygen. He longed for this big meeting with the Lord. His circular letters spoke more and more about it. Physically, he resembled those very old olive trees of Gethsemane, all twisted but still fruitful!
Jacques died at La Chauderaie on the 10th August 2016 at the age of 92 years. Not bad for a delicate child who needed a lot of coddling. Mission accomplished. He was a passionate and splendid servant of the Church of Burundi. He has now gone to Him whom he had served so well. We must not forget the mother of Jesus whom he loved so much and who was the focal point of his apostolic life.